Slavery in Britain: making reparation
On paper, we took a leading stance against the evils of slavery towards the end of the 18th century.
Some of our most distinguished members of staff were active in the abolitionist movement and expressed their opposition. We had strong links to the Glasgow Emancipation Society; our Chair of Astronomy John Pringle Nichol became its president, and alumnus James McCune Smith (1813–65) was one of its founding members. Smith is renowned as the first African American ever to gain a medical degree from any university, which he gained here in 1837 after he’d been denied entry to several American institutions due to the colour of his skin.
Our celebrated alumnus Adam Smith tried to persuade people of the economic futility of slavery and staff and students drew up several anti-slave trade petitions, one of which was discussed in Parliament in 1826 after gaining 38,000 signatures. Members of the University’s Senate declared it their wish to see “the infamous Traffick… banished from the face of the earth.” And in 1791, we awarded an honorary degree to abolitionist leader William Wilberforce.
However, in 2018, following research by our School of Humanities on Runaway Slaves in Britain, the University re-examined its past. Despite our historic commitment to abolition, we were compelled to confront the fact that we gained significant financial benefits in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries through donations and bequests with their roots in slave ownership and the trade in slave-produced goods.
In 2018, we became the first UK university to acknowledge this with the publication of a comprehensive report, Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow. This aimed to determine the extent to which we benefited financially from the profits of slavery, estimated as up to almost £200 million in today’s money, and to launch a major plan of reparative justice over the coming decade.
Worldwide, it’s been suggested that compensation owed for the damage caused by slavery should run to around $12 trillion. As part of our far-reaching contribution to this
- we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of the West Indies, designed to nurture relationships and establish a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research
- we are creating an interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery and its legacies
- we have increased the racial diversity of our staff since 2017
- campus buildings and spaces, such as our flagship James McCune Smith Learning Hub, are being named or renamed in honour of those people of black origin associated with the University
- a programme of scholarships has been launched to allow students of Afro-Caribbean descent to study at the University to address the fact they are currently under-represented.
Will we ever know whether we are doing enough to compensate for our links to slavery? We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, but with such projects as Runaway Slaves and our reparative justice plan, we are moving in the right direction to recognise and repair the wounds of the past.
This article was first published September 2020.
“Talking about any institution’s or country’s historical links to slavery can be a difficult conversation but we felt it was a necessary one for our University to have. The University deeply regrets this association with historical slavery which clashes with our proud history of support for the abolition of both the slave trade and slavery itself.”
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal
“Proud of the decision of the University of Glasgow to take this bold, moral, historic step in recognising the slavery aspect of its past and to rise as an advocate of reparatory justice, and an example of 21st-century university enlightenment.”
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies
“It’s great that the University has acted quickly to help atone for its role in the slave trade. Some things are hard to change, and that’s why we need to get stuck into them and listen to people. But it’s not just words, it’s not just good intentions, things are actually happening.”
Dame Katherine Grainger, Chancellor
The University of Glasgow is appalled at the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We stand together in condemning all forms of racism and discrimination. We are committed to promoting equality across our community.
“Glasgow, like many other cities, profited from the slave trade, but I am proud that the University has acknowledged this and become the first UK university to establish a reparative justice scheme. ‘I understand that I will never understand; however, I stand.”
Rachel Sandison, Vice-Principal, External Relations
“Very proud to be a part of the University of Glasgow. I sincerely hope other institutions follow suit with active reparations and acknowledgement of past interactions with slavery. It’s absolutely ethical, and it’s certainly the right thing to do.”
Liam Brady, President, Students' Representative Council
“Racism exists in higher education and on our campus. We have commissioned an in-depth analysis of campus experience of racial harassment and a comprehensive strategy report will support us to systemically deliver racial justice at the University.”
Bonnie Dean, Race Equality Champion
Reparative justice at Glasgow
'Runaway Slaves in Britain' project begins
UofG Senior Management Group commission report into slavery
Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen publish 'Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow'
James McCune Smith Learning Hub named after UofG African-American alumnus
MoU between University of Glasgow & University of the West Indies signed in Caribbean
MoU between University of Glasgow & University of the West Indies signed in Glasgow
Launch of James McCune Smith Scholarships for BAME students
Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research holds first meeting in Barbados
University is shortlisted for University of the Year by THE for our reparative activities